Harness racing has been conducted in the Manawatu since the first meeting held on the Manawatu Racing Club’s course in 10 November 1893 and from the very beginning its success was dependant on hard work and commitment from many people over the years to ensure its success.
Over the years the club raced from a number of sites including Awapuni racecourse, the showgrounds and the Ashhurst domain. Early meeting were noted for the presence of bookmakers and some colourful events around results.
Over time the need for the club to have a permanent home resulted in a decision in 1959 to purchase a 20 acre property on Pioneer Highway which is now the present home of the club.
As with many clubs throughout out the country the development of facilities was a result of hard work and many hours of voluntary labour to get the track installed and facilities in place. Names from this period who provided the work included local contractor Axel Hansen considered “father of the modern track” who with help from his men and along with others made financial contributions to ensure the Raceway was up and running on time.
At the 1962 AGM, prior to the inaugural meeting of the new club premises, the Chairman estimated that” the Club should have a turnover of some £45,000 on course and £60,000 off course, while the average attendance should be about 5,000. With these figures, the club should show a profit of around £8,000 per year.”
The first totalisator race meeting was run 21 November 1962 with 6,500 patrons on course. “Betting on the night was tremendous” on course the totalisator handled £41,459 (compared with £24,000 in 1961, the last day meeting held for the club at Awapuni and the TAB handled £97,509 (£20,874).
Despite this in the mid 60’s the club struggled both with debt and a lack of suitable race days to enable a profit and the club’s financial situation became dire. Options explored included the possibility of merging Otaki, Masterton and Whanganui clubs with racing to be held at the new facility, Wanganui did take up the option to race there for a period.
Over the period other clubs including Cambridge and Auckland came to the aid of Manawatu with Auckland holding a meeting which returned a £7,000 profit to the Manawatu Club and Cambridge gave the club £500 for their permit to race on a day.
Finally, in 1966 to resolve the financial issues 10 acres at the front right side of the property was sold. While not completely removing financial issues, it did allow the club to move forward.
A public stand was built in 1976 and Greyhound racing came to the club in with the first totalisator meeting being held in 1979. This period saw additional stables built and the large barn was completed in 1979
In 1980 the club raced six nights a year with maiden stakes at $1,800 the highest for a country club and in 1982 S Doody became the resident trainer. Over this period the number of horses trained on the track increased with more than 50 in work in 1984.
In 1982 Doc McKay stood down after 24 years on the committee the last 13 as President.
The move to Jetbet in November of 1983 saw the percentage of bets placed by slips being 69% on the first night and 66% on the second compared with 4% for the year at Auckland. In the same year track lighting was upgraded as the initial lighting installed in the early 1960’s was considered inadequate.
With movement in attendance numbers a meeting in March of 1986 discussed the option of conducting a feasibility study exploring the option of moving to race at Feilding. Following discussions this was not proceeded with. One highlight at this time was the commissioning of the new Members Stand in 1987. The Mayor Paul Reiger (son of a former president of the club) officiated at the opening.
In February of 1989 one of the best horses to come out of the district made her appearance at the February meeting with Blossom Lady scoring twice for the Polly Syndicate many of who were experiencing their first taste of ownership.
In the 1990’s Manawatu like many clubs in the industry experienced tough financial times but did not allow that to reduce initiatives and opportunities to improve the sport.
One feature was the installation of a false rail used for the first time in November 1992
The February 1993 meeting got off to a good start. “The appearance of champion mare Blossom Lady will prove a good draw card for Manawatu Harness Racing Club tonight,” wrote Ian Earle in the Manawatu Standard of 11 February 1993.22 She was to start from the 90 metre mark in the $12,000 Palmerstonian Classic. The Polly Syndicate, headed by former president of the Club and current Conference executive member Ralph Kermode, with 8 of her 12 owners from the region, raced the mare that had been prepared for her first six wins in the region by Stephen Doody.
“A brilliant drive by Christchurch reinsman Anthony Butt” in front of one of the biggest crowds seen at the Raceway meant that Blossom Lady “made light work of her 90 metre handicap to score narrowly” in a time of 3:58.6.23 “And the icing on the cake was when the Polly Syndicate, which races her, donated their winning cheque back to the Club for future improvements to the Blossom Lady Lounge in the Members’ Stand.”
The Club centennial was held on March 1994, with Herb Stent as president. John Gommans presented a trophy for the winner of the Centennial Trot. The C3 Anchor Milk Centennial Trot was won by Summer Pride (as a C2 horse). Smile Birdie, trained by Barry Ferguson, and driven by his son Peter, won the Palmerstonian Classic. Peter had a night to remember, driving five winners, including the last four. Central District Harness Racing Club made a generous donation of a dress rug to each winner on the night of the centennial meeting.
Patron Gordon Bradley attended the meeting only a few weeks before his death at the age of 85. He had been a licence holder in the Manawatu district for some 55 years.
As the century went by the number of races held by the club increased to 17 meetings at one point for the season. Greyhound racing takes place 50 days each year.
Over time major improvements have been made to ensure the clubs facilities are in good condition.